Friday, June 27, 2014

Day 5: Bending, Stretching, Conforming, Queering: My Genderplay Week in Review

Barnard Camo Judy
Today I sought to match my surroundings, so dressed as Barnard Camo Judy. This consisted of brightly colored heels, a pencil skirt, a bright floral shirt, makeup and earrings. I blended in quite well with the dominant style of campus--I'm sure at times it rendered me totally invisible given the volume of people walking around campus in similar garb.

And again today the subway was uneventful--so sorry dear readers! But not being harassed or stared down by anyone gave me some time to reflect on my week and the implications of my experiment. Key things I drew from my NYC subway lab (scroll down for the full photo gallery) that I'm continuing to chew on are:

  • Men displayed more ownership of public space. My experience was that men readily made eye contact with me regardless of my gender expression, whereas far fewer women met my eyes. No doubt there is a safety component to this--women have reason to be more guarded in public space, and that itself is a major problem.
  • Two of the three times I wore unambiguously feminine dress, I was hit on and frequently evaluated by mens' eyes. My gender expression in that case "entitled" those men to look at me and talk to me in an objectifying way. None of them considered that I might not be attracted to men, that I might not be attracted to them, or that I might not appreciate being hit on.
  • Dressing androgynously but with strong feminine signals (i.e. the form-fitting shirt I wore on Thursday with suspenders) seemed to protect me from the prolonged staring and discomfort I experienced on Monday and Tuesday in a very androgynous-to-masculine gender expression.
  • I felt more afraid and more tentative in androgynous-to-masculine gender expression than in any of the other gender expressions. While I dislike being hit on by men when dressing stereotypically femininely, I can better anticipate what strangers' behavior might be towards me. In contrast, I could not always read strangers' behavior or eye contact in the androgynous gender expressions. Where they aggressive? Curious? I was much more on guard.
  • What role does my whiteness have in how people responded to me this week? Men of a variety of races spoke and stared at me. Would that have been the same of different for a woman of a different race? Would a genderqueer woman of color experience similar levels of staring? We know that LGBTQ (especially trans) people of color experience far more violence than white LGBTQ people, so I wonder if that would play out in her experiencing more overt harassment on the subway than I did.
Throughout the week, I thought a lot about how in doing this, I need to be conscious that I not trivialize the experiences of trans, gender non-conforming and genderqueer people. To not treat my week as a joke, or my andro outfits as ridiculous get-ups, which could be read as mocking people whose dress and gender presentation do not conform with the sex and gender they were assigned at birth. Rather, I chose gender expressions that are all a part of me, all different versions of myself. I did not buy any new clothes or accessories for the week. This was me, all week. 

Part of my findings was that I am not brave enough to be my androgynous-to-masculine self on the regular. Since I enjoy many different gender expressions, I do tend towards the one that don't give me as much public backlash. My androgynous-to-masculine self mostly only emerges when I am hanging out with a group of queer friends, at my house with my partner, at the Creating Change conference, or sometimes with small groups of my family.

Thanks to all of you who joined me in this week-long series! I would love to hear your thoughts on gender expression, your gendered/raced experiences of public space, and if there are clothing items or gender expressions of yourself that you wish you could try on. (I know this has experience has definitely inspired me to incorporate more suspenders into my life, for instance.)

Check out the other posts in the series:
Day 1: Gender Play at Barnard
Day 2: Lipstick, Loafers and Labels
Day 3: "Do women have to be naked to get into the [MoMA]?"
Day 4: High School Hope


  1. Judy these observations are really interesting, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness too. Gives me a lot of new things to contemplate.

    I was talking to my friend J who recounted an experience going to work out, lifting weights, with a friend who identifies as gay male. From the way J was describing, they were both presenting as male but not stereotypically heterosexual male. J recounted extremely hostile eye contact from other males at the gym.

    It I guess can be really threatening for some people, males especially? I don't quite understand it.

    Even as boring old straight white me, I sometimes get a little frustrated by these categories for clothing... boy clothes, girl clothes... what people assume about each other based on that. But I'm also extremely sensitive to personally not fitting in and thus just tend to wear what is considered "normal" for my context, whatever that may be. And I guess since I mostly reflect what people see about me based on my clothing (in broader terms, straight female lady), then it's not as big a conflict as someone who really struggles with these externally-imposed identities. But I still even feel the pressure, so I can't even imagine how it is for people whose gender expression do not fit into the strict cultural binary. I really admire and appreciate people who are pushing the boundaries so bravely.

    Please give me feedback if I have made any assumptions or said anything in ways that are offensive, because these are not ideas I get the chance to talk about much, so it's still kind of in raw form in my mind.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts Katie. I think your observation is right-on that if even people who mostly feel fine with a gender expression that is stereotypical feel sometimes frustrated with the strictness of gender norms, we can only imagine how compounded that frustration/fear is for people who are most happy expressing their gender fluidly/queerly, etc. The gender strictures and policing aren't good for anybody! We need to get out of this mindset that frequent is the same as "normal"--yes maybe there are fewer cisgender women dressing in a genderqueer way at this moment in time, but that makes it no less normal to do so.

      Glad you're thinking on this, hope we'll get the chance to talk in person sometime!

    2. Yes!. Cisgender. That is the the word I always forget.

      Thank you for reminding me of the distinction between "typical" or "frequent" and "normal"...

      And yes, someday I hope to be in the same place at the same time once again :)

  2. Hey Judy,

    K-Bar directed me to this post and inasmuch as gender expression is near and dear to my heart and life experiences I thought I'd add my two cents!

    After an initial reading I was really curious to hear you say you weren't "brave" enough to go butch on the regular, whereas that's mostly how I feel about presenting femme. Since coming out, I've basically done a 360 around the gender wheel, trying to find what's most comfortable for me. Since I was raised with a very narrow, rigid concept of gender, it has been exciting to explore, experiment and see how far I could stretch the boundaries of acceptable adult behavior (ie. can a Grown Woman really do whatever she wants?), especially within the context of a presumably "liberal" society here in Cambridge, MA. What I've found is that there are pros and cons to every gender, that each presentation comes with its own set of challenges and privileges.

    The scenario Katie describes above, which occurred in a Gold's Gym, was a very stand-out experience to me because the guys there understood my gender exactly as I intended, but I found that my childhood female socialization left me ill-equipped to cope with their (negative) reaction which, in comparison, is a very common, every-day experience for all my cis male gay (sometimes even straight!) friends. Rather than learning the social ropes of male-only spaces (aka straight-acting), my tendency has been to mindlessly lean on female-specific social privileges, such as smiling and eye contact. At the time, it was really shocking to realize those behaviors are not only discouraged but interpreted as flirtatious and therefore threatening to hetero-masculine men. Needless to say, "gender safety" took on a whole other meaning that day.

    Additionally, this experience really underscored, for me, what I learned reading and identifying with the work of trans activist Julia Serano (see "Whipping Girl: A Transexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity"), as well as the work of many of my favorite drag qweens. Often, questions of gender presentation and gender safety come down to a question of what to do with reactions to and ownership of femininity, in all its nuances and forms, especially in public spaces.

    Generally speaking, anything "outside the box" gender-wise is going to generate a reaction--presenting femme at six-foot-three in many ways generated more negative/unwanted attention for me than presenting butch. For me, it's been about finding a balance between being able to carry on with my life, business as usual, and accepting that I'm a unicorn and I'm OK with that. Most of all, whatever I do, I don't want to let anyone sit too comfortably in their assumptions-- we are all more than we seem!!


    1. J, thank you so much for sharing. Very very interesting to hear your experiences, and I love the phrase "around the gender wheel"--perhaps more apt than a Spectrum because there's really no linearity about it. I would love to hear your experiences about a week in gender--let me know if you ever want to guest blog here!! xoxo